On How the Laws & Commands of Human Authorities Bind the Conscience & How They Don’t

“There is one lawgiver…”

James 4:12




On Positive Laws & Ordinances

On Church Ordinances



Order of Contents

Significance of the Quote by Calvin
Quote by Calvin
More Quotes
Rutherford’s Distinctions & Conclusions
God Only is the One Lawgiver
On Arbitrary Laws
If Authorities may Rule only in Accord with God’s Moral Law, how then is this
.         More Authority than being Privately Counseled with God’s Moral Law?



The Significance of the Quote Below by Calvin

It is a popular tenet of evangelicalism that if the civil government makes a law that does not entail a person to sin personally, that it binds the conscience to be obeyed.

It is a popular tenet of Fundamentalism and High Churchism that if a church leader gives a direction remotely within its jurisdiction (for instance: a church meeting is held, therefore one must be at that place, at that time) that one is bound in conscience to observe this, or one is in sin.

Patriarchalism teaches that if a father gives a command to his wife or child, and it does not entail personal sin, that person is in sin if he or she does not obey it.

All of this is not Reformed according to the Word of God, which teaches that “God alone is the Lord of the conscience (James 4:12; Rom. 14:4)” (WCF 20.2), and no human authority.

As Calvin elucidates below, human authorities that wield the authority of God, do so only so far as God has given them express authority in their general ends and designs.  That is, the civil magistrate is to uphold good and punish evil, the Church has spiritual power unto the edification of its members, and fathers likewise have authority for the well-being of their family.

Any specific command of human authorities, however, insofar as it entails a given context, history, specifics and detailed circumstances, goes beyond general ends and cannot innately bind persons’ consciences, especially if there are legitimate, justifying moral reasons otherwise, as the Lord has not specifically revealed or imposed his own power with regard to such specifics.

While persons ought to give due weight to human authorities and their commands, giving them the benefit of the doubt generally speaking, and as subjects are bound by the Lord in conscience to fulfilling the ordained general ends of such authorities, yet it is God’s moral and natural law alone, rightly applied to specific circumstances (which ought to be recognized by the conscience), that can bind a person’s conscience so that not to do it is sinful.

While human authorities may enforce their decisions with the power they wield in order to uphold the moral and natural law of God insofar as it appears to them in the sight of men (the external court), especially where sin appears to be inevitably involved, yet no human authority is omniscient and knows all the factors in a situation, nor can they know the thoughts of the heart.  Likewise, human authorities are liable to err.

Hence, God (with whom we have to do) must remain the sole Lord of the conscience.  On the other hand, “the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. (Rom. 10:17Rom. 14:23Isa. 8:20Acts 17:11John 4:22Hos. 5:11Rev. 13:12,16,17Jer. 8:9)”  (WCF 20.2)

The quote below by Calvin is significant because it implicitly applies to all human authorities (including the family even though he does not specifically mention the family).  It also shows that this teaching regarding human authority in making laws, which would go on to become the standard Reformed doctrine on the subject, was present and being taught from at least shortly after the Reformation.



Quote by John Calvin

Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Beveridge  (Edinburgh, 1846), vol. 3, book 4, ch. 10, section 5, pp. 196-197

“5. Let us now return to human laws.  If they are imposed for the purpose of forming a religious obligation, as if the observance of them was in itself necessary, we say that the restraint thus laid on the conscience is unlawful.  Our consciences have not to do with men but with God only.  Hence the common distinction between the earthly forum and the forum of conscience.¹

¹ French: …”And in fact, such is the import of the common distinction which has been held by all the schools, that human and civil jurisdictions are quite different from those which touch the conscience.”

When the whole world was enveloped in the thickest darkness of ignorance, it was still held (like a small ray of light which remained unextinguished) that conscience was superior to all human judgments.  Although this, which was acknowledged in word, was afterwards violated in fact, yet God was pleased that there should even then exist an attestation to liberty, exempting the conscience from the tyranny of man.

But we have not yet explained the difficulty which arises from the words of Paul.  For if we must obey princes not only from fear of punishment but for conscience sake, it seems to follow, that the laws of princes have dominion over the conscience.  If this is true, the same thing must be affirmed of ecclesiastical laws.

I answer, that the first thing to be done here is to distinguish between the genus and the species.  For though individual laws do not reach the conscience, yet we are bound by the general command of God, which enjoins us to submit to magistrates.  And this is the point on which Paul’s discussion turns, viz., that magistrates are to be honored because they are ordained of God. (Rom. 13:1)  Meanwhile, he does not at all teach that the laws enacted by them reach to the internal government of the soul, since he everywhere proclaims that the worship of God, and the spiritual rule of living righteously, are superior to all the decrees of men.

Another thing also worthy of observation, and depending on what has been already said, is, that human laws, whether enacted by magistrates or by the Church, are necessary to be observed (I speak of such as are just and good), but do not therefore in themselves bind the conscience, because the whole necessity of observing them respects the general end, and consists not in the things commanded.  Very different, however, is the case of those which prescribe a new form of worshipping God, and introduce necessity into things that are free.”



More Quotes


The Tetrapolitan Confession  1530

in ed. Dennison, Reformed Confessions of the 16th & 17th Centuries…  vol. 1 (2008), p. 155-6

Ch. 14, ‘Of Human Traditions’

“Furthermore, concerning the traditions of the fathers or such as the bishops and churches at this day ordain, the opinion of our men is as follows:  They reckon no traditions among human traditions (such, namely, as are condemned in the Scriptures) except those that conflict with the law of God,ª such as bind the conscience concerning meat, drink, times and other external things, such as forbid marriage to those to whom it is necessary for an honorable life and other things of that stamp.

For such as agree with the Scripture, and were instituted for good morals and the profit of men, even though not expressed in Scripture in words, nevertheless, since they flow from the command of love, which orders all things most becomingly, are justly regarded divine rather than human.”


Theodore Beza

‘Theodore Beza’s Confession (1560): A Brief & Pithy Sum of Christian Faith’, 5th Point, ‘Of the Church’, 33. ‘To What Purpose or End Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Serves and What are the Parts of it’  in Reformed Confessions of the 16th & 17th Centuries, ed. Dennison  (RHB, 2010), vol. 2, pp. 323

“But concerning the first part (which lies in the power [of the Church] to decree or ordain), we have already declared above that God has received to Himself fully and entirely the right to prescribe laws pertaining to the conscience and that we should walk in them uprightly before God and man.”



in David Calderwood, History of the Church of Scotland, vol. 6, 1606, p. 462

“…all defenses, seeing they are de jure naturali et communi [by the law of nature and common law], God, and nature, and all laws, permitting lawful defenses…”


Samuel Rutherford

The Divine Right of Church Government…  (1646)

pp. 25-26

“Christ has not made pastors under-kings to create any laws morally obliging the conscience to obedience in the court of God, which God has not made to their hand;

if the king and synods only declare and propound, by a power of jurisdiction, that which God in the Law of Nature or the written Word has commanded; they are not the Law-makers, nor creators of that morality in the Law, which lays bonds on the conscience; yea, they have no organical, nor inferior influence in creating that morality, God only by an immediate act as the only immediate king, made the morality, and if king, parliaments and synods be under kings and under Law-givers, they must have an under-action, and a ministerial, subservient, active influence under Christ in creating as second causes, that which is the formal reason, and essence of all laws binding the conscience, and that is the morality that obliges the soul to eternal wrath, though king, parliament, pastors or synods should never command such a moral thing:

Now to propound, or declare, that God’s will is to be done in such an act, or synodical directory or canon, and to command it to be observed under civil and ecclesiastical pain, is not to make a law, it is indeed to act authoritatively under Christ as King: but it makes them neither kings, nor Law-givers, no more than heralds are little kings, or inferior law-givers, and parliaments, because in the name and authority of king and parliament they promulgate the laws of king and parliament:

The heralds are mere servants, and do indeed represent king and parliament, and therefore to wrong them, in the promulgation of laws, is to wrong king and parliament; but the heralds had no action, no hand at all in making the laws; they may be made when all the heralds are sleeping, and so by no propriety of speech can heralds be called mediate kings, under-Lawgivers, just so here, as touching the morality of all human laws, whether civil or ecclesiastical, God Himself immediately, yea, from eternity by an act of his free-pleasure made that without advice of men or angels; for who instructed Him?  Neither Moses, nor prophet, nor apostle; yea, all here are meri precones, only heralds;

Yet are not all these heralds, who declare the morality of laws, [for] equals may declare them charitative[ly], by way of charity to equals; but these only are to be obeyed as heralds of laws, whom God has placed in authority, as kings, parliaments, synods, the Church, masters, fathers, captains;

And it follows no ways that we disclaim the authority of all these because we will not enthrone them in the chair of the Supreme and only Lawgiver, and head of the Church; they are not under-Law-givers and little kings to create laws, the morality of which binds the conscience (for this God only can do); therefore, there be no parliaments, no kings, no rulers that have authority over men, it is a most unjust consequence; for all our divines, against Papists, deny that human laws, as human, do bind the conscience; but they deny not, but assert the power of jurisdiction in kings, parliaments, synods, pastors.”


p. 135

“…but I owe subjection of conscience to God solely, independently, and only…  Yea, though crosses and afflictions work only upon us, as occasions, and external objects; yet are we to submit our conscience to them, as to warnings, because they be sent as God’s messengers appointed by Him, as Mic. 6:9, ‘Hear the rod, and who has appointed it.'”


p. 214

“…obedience to authority in things wanting [lacking] God’s Word…  is not obedience, but sinning, because [it is] doing without faith [Rom. 14:23].”


George Gillespie

111 Propositions…  (Edinburgh, 1647), #53 & 60

“53.  The object of ecclesiastical power is not the same with the object of the civil power, but much differing from it; for the ecclesiastical power does determine and appoint nothing concerning men’s bodies, goods, dignities, civil rights, but is employed only about the inward man, or the soul, not that it can search the hearts, or judge of the secrets of the conscience, which is in the Power of God alone: Yet notwithstanding it has for its proper object those externals which are purely spiritual, and do belong properly and most nearly to the spiritual good of the soul; Which also are termed [in Greek] the inward things of the Church.

60.  Now we have one only Lord which governs our souls, neither is it competent to man, but to God alone to have power and authority over consciences.  But the Lord has appointed his own [ecclesiastical] stewards over his own Family, that according to his commandment they may give to every one their allowance or portion, and to dispense his mysteries faithfully; and to them he has delivered the keys, or power of letting in into his house, or excluding out of his house those whom He Himself will have let in or shut out. Mt. 16:19 and 18:18; Lk. 12:42; 1 Cor. 4:1; Tit. 1:7″


Francis Turretin

p. 287 of Question 31, ‘Does a legislative power properly so called, of enacting laws binding the conscience, belong to the church?  Or only an ordaining (diataktike) power, of sanctioning constitutions and canons for the sake of good order (eutaxian)?  The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.’  under ‘Ecclesiastical Power’ in the 18th topic, ‘The Church’ in Institutes, vol. 3

“V.  …the conscience has no one between itself and God by whom it may be known and judged.  As it is known to God alone, so can it be judged by Him alone.”





Aquinas – Question 96, ‘Of the Power of Human Law’, 4th Article, ‘Whether Human Law Binds a Man in Conscience’ & 6th Article, ‘Whether He who is under may Act Beside the Letter of the Law?’  [Yes]  in The ‘Summa Theologica’ of St. Thomas Aquinas, Pt. 2 (1st Part)  Third Number (Questions 90-114)  trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province  (R. & T. Washbourne, 1915), Treatise on Law, (b) In Particular, pp. 69-71 & 73-75



Rutherford, Samuel – Ch. 2, Question 2, ‘Whether Human Laws Bind the Conscience or Not?’  of The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), pp. 201-219

Hall, Thomas – pp. 41-42  in The Beauty of Magistracy in an Exposition of the 82nd Psalm, where is set forth the necessity, utility, dignity, duty, and mortality of magistrates…  (London, 1660)

This is the bibliography on the topic that Hall provides:

“See this Question (An leges humanae & obligent conscientiam) more fully debated in D. [John] Davenant, de Judice ac norma fidei, ch. 26; D. Andrews on the fifth Commandment, ch. 4, p. 336; Ames, CC. bk. 1, ch. 11-12; Rutherford, Divine Right Of Church Government, p. 201; Sharpius, Common Places, Pt. 2, p. 240; Alsted, CC., p. 340, 342 & Gerhard, de Magistrat. Polit., p. 355; Musculus, Common Places, p. 645, folio; Ames, CC., bk. 5, ch. 25, q. 4.”



Barth, Paul –



Rutherford’s 7 Distinctions & 6 Conclusions

From Samuel Rutherford, Ch. 2, Question 2, ‘Whether Human Laws Bind the Conscience or Not?’  in The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), pp. 201-219



1.  A human law is taken (1) in concreto, when judges command what God commands, as when they make a law against murder;  (2) in abstracto, when the judge forbids what may tend to murder, as carrying armor in a city in the night [which is suspicious of violence and a threat to the society; c.f. Rom. 13:12].

2.  There is some moral equity in right human laws.

3.  [There is] something positive [in right human laws].

4.  There be four things to be regarded in human laws: (1) Public peace of the society;  (2) The credit, honor and majesty of the ruler, even when the law is unjust;  (3) Obedience passive, and subjection, by patient suffering;  (4) Obedience active by doing, which is now to be considered.

5.  A human law-civil may oblige, ratione generalis praecepti, ‘in regard of the general command’ to obey our superiors, as the Fifth Command says.  But the question is, if a human law, as merely positive [without moral equity], oblige in conscience, as if this which the captain forbids, as not to speak the watch-word, be in itself against the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not murder’, if no murder follow upon the not speaking of the watch-word, though it be against the Fifth [Commandment] in the general.

6.  The question is not whether we be obliged in conscience to obey superiors in things lawful, or whether we be obliged in conscience to obey superiors when they are sole authoritative relaters and carriers of God’s express law to us, for then they bring nothing of their own to lay upon us, and in these cases their laws are rather God’s laws delivered by superiors to us, and bind the conscience.

But the question is, if positive laws in particular matters, negatively only, conform to the Word, as in matters of economy and policy, as not to eat flesh in Lent, for the growth of cattle; in matters of art, and in ordering of war and military acts commanded by captains, if these commandments, as such, oblige the conscience.  Now to oblige the conscience is when the not doing of such a thing brings an evil conscience; now an evil conscience, as Pareus says, is the sense of sin committed against God and the fear of God’s judgment.

7.  The conscience is obliged by doing or not doing two ways:  (1) Per se, kindly [in its kind], when the fact of itself obliges and for no respect without, as to give alms to the poor at the commandment of the superior: (2) When the fact obliges for a reason from public peace, good example and order.



1.  When rulers command what God expressly commands, their laws oblige the conscience, Ps. 34:11, ‘Come ye children, hearken unto me, and I will teach you the fear of the Lord;’ Prov. 4:1, “Hear ye children the instruction of a Father.”

2.  Public peace in all the commandments of superiors, in so far as can be without sin, obliges the conscience, as Heb. 12:14, ‘Follow peace with all men and godliness;’ Ps. 34:14, ‘Seek peace and follow after it;’ Rom. 12:18.

3.  Subjection to the censures of rulers by suffering patiently is an obligation lying upon all private persons, 1 Pet. 2:20, ‘But if when ye do well and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable to God;’ Rom. 13:2, ‘Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.’

4.  Nothing in non-obeying unwarrantable commandments must be done that redounds to the discredit of the ruler or the hurting of his majesty and honor, 1 Pet. 2:17, ‘Honor the king;’ Eccl. 10:20, ‘Curse not the king: for even when we deny subjection or obedience-objective to that which they command, yet owe we obedience official, and all due respect and reverence to the person and eminent place of the ruler, as Acts 7:2, Steven calls them, Men, brethren and fathers, Acts. 7:51, and yet ‘stiffnecked resisters of the Holy Ghost.’

5.  Human laws, whether civil or ecclesiastic, in that particular positive matter which they have of art, economy, policy, and in God’s matters of mere human coin and stamp, do not bind the conscience at all, per se, kindly [in their kind] and of themselves.

1.  Nothing, but what is either Gods express Word, or his Word by consequence does lay a band on the conscience of itself: But not to eat flesh in Lent upon civil reasons [to let the cattle grow], not to carry armor in the night, to wear surplice, and to cross infants in Baptism, are neither God’s Word expressly, nor by consequence.  The major [proposition] is sure, because the Word is the perfect and adequate object of matters of faith and moral practice which concerns the conscience, Ps. 19:7-8; 119:9; Jn. 20:31; Prov. 8:9.

2.  Because whatever thing lays a band on the conscience, the not doing of that would be a sin before God if the ruler should never command it.  But the carrying [of] armor in the night, the not wearing [of a] surplice in divine service should be no sin before God if the ruler should never command them, as reason, Scriptures and adversaries teach.  The proposition I instruct from the definition of an obligation of conscience, for to lay a band on the conscience is defined [as] to lay a command on the soul, which ye are obliged before God to do, as you would eschew sin and obtain eternal salvation…

3.  None can lay on a band of not-doing under the hazard of sin, but they that can remit sins, for the power that looses, the same binds: But mortal men cannot bind to sin, nor loose men from sin, but where God goes before them in binding and loosing, for they cannot bestow the grace of pardoning sin…

4.  Whoever can lay on bands of laws to bring any under the debt of sin, must lay on bands of obligation to eternal punishment, but God only can do this, Mt. 10:28.  The Proposition is clear, because sin against God, essentially includes a relative obligation to eternal punishment.

5.  In matters of Gods worship this is clear.  The schoolmen, as Aquinas, Suarez, Ferrariensis, Conradus teach us that there is a twofold good.  The first is:

An objective and primordial goodness, whereby things are agreeable to God’s Law, if rulers find not this in that good which they command, they are not just, and so not to be obeyed.

There is another goodness that comes from the will of authority, and so only divine authority must make things good; the will and authority of rulers finds objective goodness in them, and therefore enacts laws of things, but because they enact laws of things, they do not therefore become good and lawful; It is the will of the Creator of all beings which is the measure, rule and cause of the goodness of things…

Men cannot make worlds; nor can their will create goodness in acts indifferent, nor can their forbidding will illegitimate or make evil any actions indifferent, and therefore things must be morally good, and so intrinsically good without the creative influence of human authority, and from God only are they apt to edify, and to oblige the conscience in the terms of goodness moral.

And this is strengthened by that which in reason cannot be denied, to wit, that it is essential to every human law that lays any obligation on the conscience, that it be just, nor is it to be called a law except it be just, and justice and equity human laws have from God, the law of nature and his Word, not from the authority and will of men…  the schoolmen…  give strong reasons why rulers cannot lay an obligation on the conscience when the matter of the law is light and naughty…   the just weight of the matter is the only just ground of the law’s obligation.  Therefore:

1.  The will of the lawgiver, except he make a moat a mountain, cannot lay an obligation of necessity on man.

2.  It were a foolish law, and so no law to oblige to eternal punishment and the offending of God for a light thing, for this were to place the way of salvation in that wherein the way consists not.

3.  Such a law were not for edification, but for destruction of souls.

4.  This was the Pharisees fault, Mt. 23, to lay on intolerable burdens on men’s souls.

5.  The law of God and nature frees us in positive laws from guilt, in case of necessity, as David did lawfully eat showbread.

6.  A civil law may not take away a man’s life for a straw, far less can it bind to God’s wrath.

7.  Augustine says they be unjust balances to esteem things great or small for our sole will.

Out of all which, I conclude that no law as a law does oblige the conscience, but that which has from the matter moral equity, and not from the intention of the lawgiver, as Cajetan, Silvester, Angelus and Corduba teach, which intention must take a rule from the matter of the law, and not give a rule.  Gerson, no law (says he) is a law to be called as necessary to salvation (as all good laws should be) but that which de jure divino, is according to God’s law…  And therefore his [Durandus’s] mind is that all obligation of Conscience, in human commandments comes from God’s will and law, that is, from the just and necessary matter of the law, not from the will of men.

6.  All human or ecclesiastic laws binding the conscience have necessary, and not probable deduction only, by the warrant of both the major proposition and assumption from the Word of God and Law of Nature…

…And it follows from a sure ground that [which] Vasquez lays down, and he has it from Driedo, to wit, that the efficacy of obligation in human laws, comes not from the will of lawgivers, or their intention, but from the dignity or weightiness of the matter.  If then the matter be not from God’s law, just, the obligation is none at all; for if the law from man’s will shall lay on an obligation of three degrees, whereas God’s law from God’s will, before men enacted this in a law, laid on an obligation of two degrees only, tying the conscience, then the will of man creates obligation, or the obligative power of conscience in the matter of the law, and by that same reason he creates goodness, which is absurd, for that is proper to God only.

I grant it is hard, because of the variety of singular actions in man’s life, to see the connection betwixt particulars of human laws and God’s laws; yet a connection there is, and for this cause the learned worthy divine, Pareus will have human laws in particulari and per se, ‘in the particular’ and ‘of themselves’ to bind the conscience.  Whereas Calvin, and Beza, Junius, Tilenus, Sibrandus, Whittakerus and others deny this.  But the truth is, human civil laws are two ways considered:

1.  As they are merely positive and according to the letter of the Law;

2.  As they have a connection with (1) the principles of nature, of right and wrong; (2) with the end of the law, which is the supreme law, the safety of the people…

…for whatever obliges the conscience as a divine truth, the ignorance thereof is a sinful ignorance, and makes a man guilty of eternal wrath, but men are not guilty and liable to the eternal wrath of God because they are ignorant of all the civil laws in Justinian’s book; then were we obliged to be no less versed in all the civil laws, that binds in foro humano [in the court of man], than of the Bible and law of God.

The adversaries strive to prove that these laws oblige the con∣science…”



God Only is the One Lawgiver

Calvin, John – Institutes, bk. 4, ch. 10, sections 7-8



On Arbitrary Laws


John Calvin

Institutes, bk. 4, ch. 10, section

“…still I deny that they have been set over believers as legislators to prescribe a rule of life at their own hands, or bind the people committed to them to their decrees.  When I say this, I mean that they are not at all entitled to insist that whatever they devise without authority from the Word of God shall be observed by the Church as matter of necessity.

Since such power was unknown to the apostles, and was so often denied to the ministers of the Church by our Lord himself, I wonder how any have dared to usurp, and dare in the present day to defend it, without any precedent from the apostles, and against the manifest prohibition of


Commentary on Acts 5:28

“In the second member [of the verse] he betrays an evil conscience, or, at least, he shows that he handled rather a private business than any public cause, for he complains that the apostles will cause the priests and the scribes to be hated for the death of Christ.

Notwithstanding this is the principal point of the accusation, that they did not obey the commandment of the priests…  But the chief priest does not consider what is his duty towards God and the Church; he abuses his authority tyrannously, as if the same were not under any laws, as the Pope deals with us at this day; for seeing that he takes to himself an unbridled authority and government, he fears not to condemn us for schismatics, so soon as he sees us refuse his decrees; for he catches at these sentences: “He which despiseth you despiseth me,” (Luke 10:16;) and thereupon he concludes that we will rebel against God.  But if he will be heard as the ambassador of Christ, he must speak out of the mouth of Christ.

Now, forasmuch as he does manifestly play the minister of Satan, he borrows authority, without shame and color, of the name of Christ; yea, the very form of speech which the chief priest uses doth prove how carelessly spiritual tyrants who usurp such authority and lordship as is not subject to the Word of God, dare grant liberty to themselves to attempt whatsoever pleases them.  With a commandment (says he) have we commanded.  Whence comes such strait rigor, save only because they think that all that must be received without exception which they shall command?”



George Gillespie

p. 83 of Ch. 15, ‘Of Uniformity in Religion, Worship of God and Church Government’  in Miscellaneous Questions  (no date)

“The Prelatical conformity…  Their way was destructive to true Christian liberty both of conscience and practice, compelling the practice, and conscience itself, by the mere will and authority of the law-makers.  Obedite praepositis [obey in those things having been put forth] was the great argument with them to satisfy consciences: Sic volo, sit jubeo, sic pro ratione voluntas [Thus I will; I may so command; thus the will for the reason].  We say that no canons nor constitutions of the church can bind the conscience nisi per et propter verbum Dei, i.e. except insofar as they are grounded upon and warrantable by the Word of God, at least by consequence, and by the general rules thereof…”


English-Popish Ceremonies  (1637), Pt. 3, Ch. 7, Sections 7, pp. 131-3

“If the Church prescribe anything lawfully, so that she prescribe no more than she has power given her to prescribe, her ordinance must be accompanied with some good reason and warrant given for the satisfaction of tender consciences…  It becomes not the souse of Christ, endued with the spirit of meekness, to command anything imperiously, and without a reason given…

Tertullian’s testimony is known (in Apologet.): Nulla lex, etc.  ‘No law (says he) owes to itself alone the conscience of its equity, but to those from whom it expects obedience.  Moreover, it is a suspected law which will not have itself to be proved, but a wicked law, which not being proved, yet bears rule.’…

Neither can the Church prescribe anything lawfully which she shows not to have been convenient, even before her determination.

If the ceremonies be lawful to us because the law and ordinance of the Church prescribes them, then either the bare and naked prescription of the Church, having no other warrant than the Church’s own authority, make them to be thus lawful; or else the law of the Church, as grounded upon and warranted by the law of God and nature…

If they take them (as needs they must) to the latter part, then let them either say that the ceremonies are lawful unto us, because the Church judges them to be agreeable to the law of God and nature, or because the Church proves unto us, by evident reasons, that they are indeed agreeable unto these laws.  If they yield us the latter, then it is not the Church’s law, but the Church’s reasons given for her law, which can warrant the lawfulness of them unto us; which does elude and elide all that which they allege for the lawfulness of them from the power and authority of the Church.

And further, if any such reasons be to be give forth for the ceremonies, why are they so long kept up from us?…

It will be answered (I know), that if they Church command anything repugnant to God’s Word we are not bound to do it, nor to receive it as lawful, though the Church judge so of it; but otherwise, if that which the Church judges to be agreeable to the law of God and nature (and in that respect prescribes) be not repugnant to the Word of God, but in itself indifferent, then are we to embrace it as convenient, and consonant to the law of God and nature, neither ought we to call in question the lawfulness of it.

But I reply, that [in this case] either we must judge a thing to be repugnant or not repugnant to the Word, to be indifferent or not indifferent in itself, [merely] because the Church judges so of it [which is insufficient to conscience], or else because the Church proves unto us by an evident reason that it is so…  the argument is still set afoot [incomplete]; then we must receive everything (be it ever so bad) as indifferent, if only the Church happen so to judge of it; for quod competit alicui qua tale, etc.  So that if we receive anything as indifferent, for this respect, because the Church judges it to be so, then shall we receive everything for indifferent which the Church shall so judge of [which is absurd].”


Samuel Rutherford

Lex Rex...  (1644), p. 228

“Question 6.  Whether absolute and unlimited power of royalty be a ray and beam of divine majesty immediately derived from God?

Answer.  Not at all.  Such a creature is not in the world of God’s creation.  Royalists and flatterers of kings are parents to this
prodigious birth.  There is no shadow of power to do ill in God.  An absolute power is essentially a power to do without or above law, and a power to do ill, to destroy; and so it cannot come from God as a moral power by institution, though it come from God by a flux of permissive providence; but so things unlawful and sinful come from God.”


The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646)

To the Reader

“An arbitrary power in any, whether in prince or prelates, is intolerable.”


p. 30

“It is without all warrant to expound Christian Liberty of a power of devising a mutable Church-policy, and laws not warranted in God’s Word, seeing Christian Liberty expressly exempts us altogether from obedience to men’s laws not warranted by Christ’s Word, Gal. 5:1; Col. 2:20, etc.”


Ch. 2, Question 2, p. 208

“…for rulers in making laws, and creating by their sole pleasure goodness-moral, in particular matters without the Word of God, are not God’s servants, nor is human authority as human, the nearest cause of obligation of conscience, instamped in these laws, nor is it the cause at all, and therefore to resist them, is not to resist God.

They be God’s instruments and ministers in:

1.  Propounding and expounding God’s laws.

2.  In executing them and defending them from the violence of men.

3.  In making positive and directory civil laws, for civil government, that are laws improperly so called, which bind the conscience as above is said, in so far, as they have dependence upon GodCh.s Law [in their design for good, though they may not be materially good in and of themselves];

For James says, ‘There is but one Lawgiver’ [James 4:12].  As for Church-canons, all, except physical circumstances in them, are to be warranted by the Word.”



Free Church of Scotland

Catechism on the Principles and Constitution of the Free Church of Scotland Issued by Authority of the General Assembly…  New Edition  (Edinburgh, 1882), pp. 24 & 44

“Q. 63.  If you found Church judicatories passing Acts irrespective of the laws of Christ in the Bible, and introducing, at their own discretion, rites and institutions for which there is no Scripture warrant, what would you say?

A.  That these judicatories were arrogating to themselves Christ’s prerogative as the Lawgiver of his Church.

Q. 144.  Who are they that violate the crown-rights of Christ as the Head of authority to the Church?

A.  They are such as seek to subject the Church to human laws, in place of, or in addition to, his laws in the Scriptures; and such as allow either more or less authority and power to Church office-bearers than He has given them.”


James Bannerman

The Church of Christ, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1868), pp. 241-2, 248

“First, the power claimed by the governors of the Christian
Church is not an arbitrary or capricious authority, to be wielded at will by them, in disregard of the rights or consciences of the members.

There are certain limitations of a most important nature affixed to that power, and certain principles of a definite kind laid down for the use and administration of it, which set bounds round about it, and bring it into harmony with the liberty of conscience, rightfully belonging to every private individual of the Christian society.

3rd.  Church power is limited by the rule prescribed for its exercise, or by the Word of God.  This third limitation ties down the administration of Church power to certain fixed principles and a certain definite law, and excludes the possibility of its becoming a wayward and arbitrary authority, to be wielded at the will or caprice of man.  It forbids the unauthorized addition or subtraction of anything in the constitution, doctrine, worship, or discipline of the Church, such as Christ has not sanctioned in His Word.”



If Authorities may Rule only in Accord with God’s Moral Law, how then is this More Authority than being Privately Counseled with God’s Moral Law?

Samuel Rutherford

The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), Ch. 2, Question 2, ‘Whether Human Laws Bind the Conscience or Not?’, pp. 210-11

“Answer:  1. We owe to equals, to Mahomet, conditional and cautionary faith and obedience; thus, I believe what Mahomet says, so he speak God’s Word; yea, so Samaritans who worshipped they knew not what (Jn. 4:26) gave faith to their teachers in a blind way, so they speak according to God’s Word.

2.  It follows in no sort, if rulers are only to be obeyed when they bring God’s Word, that then they are no more to be obeyed than equals and inferiors, because there is a double obedience, one of conscience, and [one] objective, coming from the thing commanded; And in respect of this, the Word has no less authority, and does no less challenge obedience of conscience, and objective, when my equal speaks it in a private way, yea, when I write it in my muse, than when a pastor speaks it by public authority;

For we teach against Papists that the Word borrows no authority from men, nor is it with certainty of faith to be received as the Word of man, but as indeed the Word of God, as the Scripture says:

1.  There is another obedience-official, which is also obedience of conscience, because the Fifth Commandment enjoins it.  Yet not obedience of conscience coming from the particular [positive aspect] commanded in human laws, as human;

so I owe obedience of subjection, and submission of affection, of fear, love, honor, respect, by virtue of the Fifth Commandment to rulers when they command according to God’s Word, and this I owe not to equals or inferiors; and so it follows not that the power of rulers and synods is titular, because they must warrant their mandates from the Word…

But 3. That I owe no more objective subjection of conscience to this, ‘Thou shalt not murder’, ‘Believe in Jesus Christ,’ when rulers and pastors command them, than when I read them in God’s Word…

…whether public or private person, adds not any intrinsical authority to the Word, for then the Word should be more or less God’s Word, as the bearers were public, or private, more or less worthy.  As God’s Word spoken by Amos, a prophet, should not be a word of such intrinsical authority as spoken by Moses, both a prince and a prophet.

4.  …and there is reason that synods and pastors, should rather promulgate God’s laws than the people:

1.  Because God has given to them by office, the key of knowledge.

2.  Because by office they are watchmen, and so have authority of office to hear the Law at God’s mouth, and in synods to give directories or canons according to that Word, which people have not, and that their canons must be according to God’s Word, is said in the Word, Neh. 10:32, “Also we made ordinances for us… (v. 34) as it is written in the law of the Lord.”




Pareus, David – An Oration on the Question whether the Laws of the Magistrate Oblige the Conscience  (Heidelberg, 1616)

Chamier, Daniel – ch. 16, ‘Whether the Laws of the Civil Magistrate Oblige the Conscience, and How Far they Oblige?’  in Panstratiae Catholicae, or a Body of the Controversies of Religion Against the Papists, vol. 5 (Church)  (Frankfurt, 1627-1629), bk. 4, ‘Of the Members of the Church-Militant’

“The name of Chamier (d. 1621) is one of the greatest, not only among Calvinistic divines, but in all theological literature.  His Panstratiae Catholicae (1626) is the ablest work from a Calvinistic hand in in the great Roman Catholic Controversy, and takes its general rank with books like Chemnitz’s Examen and Gerhard’s Confessio Catholica.  It was prepared at the request of the Synod of Larochelle.  There is no difference of opinion among competent judges as to its distinguished merits, and it is justly regarded among all Calvinists as one of the highest authorities.” – Krauth, a Lutheran, p. 47




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